December 11, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Mishpatim

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

 “If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him?” –Exodus 23:5

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the capacity of the human heart. 

My father-in-law, Rabbi Charles Sherman, invited Officer Steven McDonald (of blessed memory) to his congregation for Selichot services. McDonald told his life-altering story: He was 29 years old in 1986, when he and his partner stopped to speak to three teenage boys loitering in Central Park. One of them, age 15, pulled out a gun and shot McDonald three times. The incident left McDonald paralyzed from the neck down.

And yet, regarding his attacker, Shavod Jones, McDonald said, “I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.” After Jones was convicted and incarcerated, McDonald sent Jones a book of stamps with a note reading, “Let’s carry on a dialogue.” For McDonald, it was important to teach Jones that as a teenager, he still had more life to live, and to the world, McDonald refused to carry on with a hardened heart. 

Maimonides explains, “When someone that has wronged you comes to ask a favor, respond to him with a complete heart.” I realize this doesn’t necessarily mean do the favor. But perhaps it means don’t turn away the person. Don’t live life with a closed door or a closed heart. 

Forgiveness isn’t synonymous with weakness. Quite the opposite: to contemplate forgiveness may open folds of our heart and a source of strength we never knew existed. Forgiveness may not always be possible but I pray that keeping the heart open is something we cultivate every single day. 

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive Director, Aish LA

The greatest scholar of the past 500 years, the Vilna Gaon, said, “The entire purpose of our existence is to overcome our negative habits.” We must become a fully integrated, holistically balanced and perfected human being. Hence, the study of ethics and our drive to be “good.” But one person’s good can be another person’s evil. It’s all relative. ISIS thinks it’s bringing heaven on Earth. So what is the yardstick? 

Societies that create laws based on human reasoning must change their laws as people change. Not so with the Jewish people. Our laws are divine in origin and offer counterintuitive rules with a goal to perfect us beyond our understanding. 

The Talmud teaches that I must help my enemy unload his overburdened donkey, even if my friend’s donkey is equally overburdened (Bava Metzia 32b). This is totally counterintuitive. The animals’ conditions are indistinguishable, and my friend is counting on me. Why must I help my enemy? To subdue my evil inclination, says the Talmud, which will skew my judgment in evaluating which donkey needs more help.

The civil laws of the Torah are not about our convenience, but rather our perfection. The Torah defines the source of true evil, namely our inability to overcome our bottomless ego and incapacitating resentment. Mankind cannot judge itself, nor set the bar for human excellence. That must come from the one who created us and who made the rules we must live by.

Craig Ackermann
Founding and Managing Partner Ackermann & Tilajef, P.C., a class-action and employment law firm

The Torah is not man’s theology, said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, but God’s anthropology. Crammed with divine wisdom, the Torah teaches us about us and how we should live. 

On a basic level, as our sages explained, this verse shows that we are prohibited from allowing pain to animals, even those owned by enemies — the prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim. 

On a deeper level, according to one midrash, the verse contemplates that reconciliation of human conflicts may begin through joint ventures, which can change underlying conflict dynamics. The verse challenges us to view personal disputes as burdens we carry, like overloaded donkeys, weights to be removed. 

On a mystical level, the verse suggests a messianic mindset. Rav Kook says that although the donkey is the most impure of all creatures according to the Zohar, it is also the only nonkosher animal subject to redemption of the first-born (Exodus 13). During the Exodus, donkeys carried out Egypt’s treasures. Further, the Messiah will arrive riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

The verse contemplates a time when matter (chomer), which according to the Maharal is related to the Hebrew word for donkey (chamor), will be overcome by the spiritual awareness that we are all God’s children. In helping our enemies’ donkeys, the Torah suggests, we may unleash the latent holiness in the materialism and conflicts of the world, allowing the world’s “donkeys” to leave Egypt and instead enter Jerusalem, heralding an era of peace and brotherhood.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Everyone’s instinct is not to help our enemy’s donkey! And yet the Torah underscores it both as a mitzvah and with strong interrogative language: “How could you not help?!” 

Why does God require this of us? Rabbeinu Bachya answers that God wants us to be people who run to alleviate the pain of an animal. And while we are speaking of a work animal in our verse, we can certainly see that the sensitivity this mitzvah cultivates within us reaches far beyond our case. 

Jews are called to lift the burden of the vulnerable. Our case is the model because it’s the most counterintuitive — no one wants to act in a way that will benefit an enemy. God nevertheless makes it clear that we cannot allow our personal disputes to keep us from providing much needed help. It is incredibly hard to help someone we don’t like. To carry a burden together with someone with whom we disagree. To put the goal of alleviating others’ pain above our own discomfort. But God requires that we set ourselves aside and lift the burden of our enemy’s donkey — literally and spiritually. 

This Shabbat, as we read this law, let’s reflect in our own lives on a situation where our instinct is not to help — to run in the opposite direction. What would it look like to lift the burden of our enemy’s donkey today? And how would we change as people if we offered to help specifically when we don’t want to?

Tsipora Ohr (Sydney) Edmond
Poet, painter, autistic, and types to communicate 

I am my enemy’s donkey
I am my enemy
I am the hand that turns my enemy
I am the kindness shown the donkey
I am who I am.

During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Table for Five includes young voices from Vista Del Mar’s Moses-Aaron Cooperative Program.